Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Promoting LGBTQ students’ well-being in schools

By Roberto L. Abreu, Adriana G. McEachern, Jennifer Geddes Hall and Maureen C. Kenny October 2, 2018

Research shows that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately bullied (whether in person or via cyberbullying), verbally and physically harassed, and assaulted in schools by peers and staff. Such hostility has been correlated to lower school performance and psychological and emotional distress, including suicidal ideation and attempt, depression and anxiety.

In the 2015 GLSEN (formerly Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) National School Climate Survey, LGB students reported higher levels of verbal, physical and sexual violence and bullying than did their heterosexual counterparts. Specifically, 98.1 percent of LGB students heard the word “gay” used in a derogatory manner, 85.2 percent reported verbal harassment, and 34.7 percent reported being physically harassed in the past year. In addition, a 2017 meta-analysis (conducted by co-authors Roberto L. Abreu and Maureen C. Kenny) of 27 empirical studies on the effects of cyberbullying on LGBTQ youth revealed that compared with their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts, these students are disproportionately harassed online and through other technology-based means. Such harassment has been correlated to a range of behavioral and emotional difficulties, including suicidal ideation (with some studies suggesting rates as high as 40 percent among LGBTQ youth) and suicide attempts (with rates as high as 30 percent).

Many LGBTQ students identify school counselors as the one school staff member to whom they are most likely to disclose concerns related to their sexual and gender identity. Given this reality, school counselors are uniquely positioned to address myths about LGBTQ youth, to advocate for these students and to effect change.

Dispelling myths

Let’s begin by examining five myths that can have an impact on the identity, safety and well-being of LGBTQ youth. We’ll also look at specific strategies and interventions that counselors can use to address these myths and increase the safety of LGBTQ students.

Myth #1: Parents must be informed of their child’s sexual and gender identity. A 10th-grader discloses to her high school counselor that she identifies as a lesbian. Most of her friends know, but she has yet to tell her parents. She fears their reaction because she has heard them make derogatory remarks toward LGBTQ individuals in the past. Must the school counselor inform the student’s parents?

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model (2012) stresses the importance of parent and family involvement and its influence on the well-being of students. Although parent engagement is critical when working with LGBTQ youth, school counselors should consider several factors before disclosing to parents a student’s sexual or gender identity. Many LGBTQ students believe they lack parental support, and they may fear rejection, abuse and an unsafe home environment if their parents discover their sexual or gender identity.

Therefore, the counselor in this scenario should first discuss with the student her feelings about informing her parents and assess how they may react to this information. It would be important for the counselor to prepare the student for potential negative parental responses. Role-playing the conversation could be helpful for the student. It would be best to have the minor client make the disclosure to her parents with the counselor present to provide support. It is also important to have a plan in place to provide the client with a safe place to stay should the parents totally reject her and need time to adjust to the situation.

In certain instances, school counselors may have to break confidentiality. For example, what if the student also disclosed to the counselor that she was distraught over the situation and was having suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness because she feared that her parents would never understand or accept her sexual and gender identity? In that situation, there would be potential harm and danger to the minor client. Therefore, the counselor would need to conduct a thorough suicide assessment, then inform the client of the legal and ethical reasons that confidentiality must be breached.

It is important for counselors to check their schools’ policies and procedures in relation to dealing with crisis situations such as suicide. School counselors can work with parents individually or in groups to foster awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ students and to promote understanding of their needs and the challenges these students face every day.

Myth #2: Gender-neutral facilities are a threat to school safety. A school district policy does not allow transgender students to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity. A transgender student has brought this to the attention of the school counselor, inquiring about what to do. The student says he often goes the entire school day without going to the restroom.

School counselors should use their role as staff and educators to speak to the school administration about this issue. In talking to school administrators, counselors can present research related to transgender students experiencing a lack of safety in schools and make the argument that forcing these students to use a bathroom that does not align with their gender identity only contributes to this presenting concern.

Some states have passed laws precluding gender-neutral facilities, imposing on the rights of transgender individuals to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity rather than their sex at birth. Some of these laws have been incorporated into school policy. The rationale given for these laws has been to protect public privacy and safety. However, there is no research evidence to support this claim.

In 2015, Media Matters for America conducted a survey of 17 school districts in 12 states encompassing approximately 600,000 students. The survey asked about cases of harassment or inappropriate behavior after transgender-inclusive policies had been passed in those districts. The survey results concluded that no incidents of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior had been reported in those schools, debunking the myth that gender-neutral facilities are a threat to school safety.

Counselors, as social justice agents, must involve themselves in policy. This can be done at school meetings, where counselors can advocate for gender-neutral policies in schools and school districts. Counselors can inform school administrators of their interest in participating in these meetings and being involved in the decision-making process. They can volunteer to conduct information sessions for meeting participants about the academic, personal and career needs of LGBTQ youth. Counselors should actively seek to advocate for transgender youth so that these students can use the bathroom that best aligns with their gender.

Myth #3: School policies and laws protect all students. School policies and laws have focused mainly on reducing bullying but not necessarily on protecting LGBTQ youth and keeping them safe. The 2015 GLSEN report that investigated anti-bullying policies in the nation’s school districts revealed that out of the 13,181 school districts surveyed, 70 percent had anti-bullying policies. However, only 20 percent of these school districts had LGB-inclusive policies, and only 10 percent had LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policies.

Although anti-bullying policies may be in place, LGBTQ students continue to report higher incidents of bullying and harassment than do other students. Often, these policies are not widely distributed to students and staff, and although most students and staff may be aware of district anti-bullying policies, they are not necessarily aware of LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policies. 

Furthermore, policies and laws are often influenced by politics and societal opinions. Laws referred to as “no promo homo” involve efforts to prevent national LGBT education, mandate that administrators take a neutral stance on gender identity and prohibit providing specific services to these students. Although seven states (Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas) had “no promo homo” laws as of January 2018, many states are working to develop LGBT-inclusive laws and policies that do not discriminate against these youth. For example, many states have developed LGBT anti-discrimination laws. These laws also permit transgender students to participate in sports congruent with their gender identity.

School counselors need to be proactive and work with school administrators to develop LGBT-inclusive policies. Counselors can assist in disseminating and discussing these policies regularly with students, parents and staff. Counselors should educate school administrators on bullying and “no promo homo” laws so they will better understand the detrimental effects of systemic oppression on LGBT youth.

In addition, school counselors should empower LGBTQ students to share with school staff their experiences with bullying and harassment within the school. This will open the door for school personnel to make a personal connection with these students and will help them learn more about the physical and mental health consequences of LGBTQ bullying and lack of representation.

Myth #4: LGBTQ students are safe around all school personnel. Many LGBTQ students do not feel safe at school — around either other students or school personnel. The GLSEN survey from 2015 reported that more than 50 percent of LGBTQ students heard homophobic comments from teachers and school staff. Many of these students believed that reporting harassment or assaults to school personnel would worsen the situation and that no action would be taken. Among those who did disclose bullying, harassment or assault to school staff, 63.5 percent indicated that their reports were ignored. In addition, when these incidents were reported, LGBTQ students faced harsher discipline than did their heterosexual and cisgender peers and were often blamed for the incidents (see research from Shannon Snapp, Jennifer Hoenig, Amanda Fields and Stephen Russell). This lack of support from school personnel places LGBTQ students at greater risk of being victimized.

In 2017, students in California’s San Luis Obispo High School published an edition of the student paper, Expressions, featuring LGBTQ issues. In response, a special education teacher at the school wrote a letter quoting the Bible and stating that those committing homosexual acts “deserve to die.” The school administration chose not to discipline the teacher for the action, stating that teachers as well as students “do not shed their First Amendment rights” at school. Although the teacher resigned soon after the incident, his statement remains a testament to the harassment and discrimination leveled against some LGBTQ students by school personnel.

School counselors need to advocate for and support LGBTQ students in the face of such victimization. Providing training to all students, parents and school staff is critical to reducing incidents of bullying and harassment and increasing awareness and sensitivity to the issues LGBTQ students confront in schools. A middle school in South Florida developed a monthlong program that focused on bullying prevention, including sexual and gender identity sensitivity training at various levels. At the high school level, counselors are forming LGBTQ support groups to provide outlets for these students to discuss specific issues and concerns. These groups provide one way to let these students know that they are valued and that their voices are important.

Myth #5: Sex education is inclusive of all students. Sex education that is LGBTQ inclusive is very limited or nonexistent in our nation’s schools. Often, this lack of inclusion is due to discomfort and lack of knowledge about LGBTQ sexuality on the part of school personnel, students and parents. Many teachers do not feel competent to teach on the topic.

Traditionally, sex education in U.S. schools centered on an abstinence-only curriculum. This ideology changed somewhat in the 1980s because of the AIDS epidemic, the increase in sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. The curriculum during this time focused on prevention and contraception, but no content was included on LGBTQ sexuality. In the 1990s, there was an effort to develop national guidelines for comprehensive sex education by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a task force composed of educators and health professionals. However, these guidelines also lacked specific and clear directives on how to address the needs of LGBTQ students in schools.

Health care reform legislation in 2010 provided states with funding to draft comprehensive sex education in schools. One of the programs created from this initiative was the Personal Responsibility Education Program for young adults. Once again, however, this program
failed to offer educational content or policy language that was inclusive of LGBTQ students.

Given this reality, school counselors can take leadership roles in advocating to administrators and teachers on the importance of including educational information and materials about LGBTQ sexuality in the sex education curriculum. Counselors may need to ensure that the programs being used to teach sexuality are inclusive. Counselors can assist health educators by providing appropriate materials (see hrc.org/resources/a-call-to-action-lgbtq-youth-need-inclusive-sex-education for more information on LGBTQ-inclusive sex education). Counselors can also conduct psychoeducational workshops to dispel myths and misconceptions regarding LGBTQ students with all stakeholders, including students, school staff and parents.

 

A call to action

Clearly, the perpetuation of these myths indicates that something more needs to be done to better support LGBTQ students within school systems. School counselors, as outlined by ASCA, have an ethical obligation to support underserved and oppressed populations. Additionally, school counselor training programs emphasize the role of school counselors as agents of change within the school system and professional leaders who must act as allies and advocates for all students.

This role includes:

  • Being aware of the challenges that LGBTQ students face within the school system
  • Designing a developmental, comprehensive school counseling program to support the LGBTQ student population
  • Advocating for policies and practices that address inequities regarding academic, career and social/emotional domains for LGBTQ students 

Therefore, supporting LGBTQ students and promoting social justice initiatives should be done through large-scale, small-scale and individual interventions in an effort to create a positive school climate for everyone.

Readiness assessment

The first step is to conduct a needs and readiness assessment. This assessment should focus on gauging the school’s current climate related to LGBTQ students and the willingness of staff to make needed changes. Assessments should target students, faculty, staff and parents. Their openness toward acceptance and making changes, as well as the amount of education and training they have received related to LGBTQ populations, is important to assess.

Parents and school personnel may be reluctant to support LGBTQ youth in part because they do not feel prepared to respond to the unique needs of these students. School counselors will need to collaborate and discuss concerns with all stakeholders to comprehensively make appropriate systemic changes. These conversations also allow school counselors to gain awareness of current school policies and procedures related to the treatment of LGBTQ students.

Additionally, before changes can begin, school counselors should collect data that may be reflective of disparities and issues that LGBTQ students face within the school. Such data may include behavioral referrals, truancy rates and negative changes in grades and attitudes/behaviors. Behavioral referrals should be more specific and include incidents of verbal and physical harassment that LGBTQ students have endured as well as LGBTQ students who might be “acting out” in class in reaction to bullying or oppressive interactions.

LGBTQ students who are lacking support and involved with negative interactions often are truant, report somatic complaints and disengage from the learning process. It is therefore important that school counselors collect and examine data concerning absenteeism, visits to the school nurse, incidents of skipping class and dropping grades. This data should be saved and used as well during the measurement of formative and summative program success. This information will help inform what needs exist and how the school can best support LGBTQ students in dealing with their struggles.

It is important to note here that when collecting and analyzing data, counselors should look for patterns and then meet with students individually, regardless of their sexual or gender identity. At the time of this meeting, if the student discloses that their struggles are indeed related to their LGBTQ identity (for example, they are being bullied because of their gender expression), then counselors should move forward with interventions while making sure to protect the student’s confidentiality.

Intervention formulation

After school counselors have conducted a thorough assessment of their schools’ climate and needs, they can begin to formulate interventions and adjust policies to better support LGBTQ students. School counselors should include LGBTQ community members on their advisory boards to assist with inclusivity when promoting change and programming. Change and programming should include interventions at the schoolwide, small group and individual levels. 

Schoolwide interventions addressing bullying and diversity have been deemed most effective in promoting a more positive school environment for all students. These interventions should include procedures and programming specific to the LGBTQ population, such as staff training on LGBTQ issues, multicultural awareness and response procedures regarding victimization of LGBTQ students. Schoolwide strategies and policies to address LGBTQ-specific bullying and harassment must also be outlined.

Schools are also encouraged to provide educational workshops for parents that address issues related to sexual and gender identity, ways of talking at home about bullying (with both victims and perpetrators), and ways to discuss diversity and acceptance beyond the school setting. These conversations should include information that is pertinent and specific to LGBTQ students.

As a universal approach, teachers should be encouraged to incorporate LGBTQ-affirming curricula into their existing core areas of focus at the elementary, middle and high school levels as developmentally appropriate. School counselors also need to include examples of LGBTQ populations and the issues they face in classroom guidance lessons and when promoting positive behavior intervention and character education programs at their schools. Positive recognition of LGBTQ students, parents, staff and community members can also help to promote a more accepting environment overall. Additionally, it is beneficial to foster support from those involved in athletics and other extracurricular activities. This includes recruiting the active assistance and endorsement of coaches and athletes regarding LGBTQ students.

In addition to schoolwide interventions, schools can better support LGBTQ students by providing small group and individual services designed specifically for them. Safe zones/diversity rooms can be designated to serve as a resource for LGBTQ student needs or concerns. These spaces should be run by the school counselor or other trained staff and must respect the confidentiality of the students who use them. These spaces can serve as a safe, supportive environment for LGBTQ and other students to discuss issues they are facing. In addition, they can serve as resource rooms stocked with helpful books, flyers and other materials.

School counselors can also facilitate support groups specifically for LGBTQ students, allowing them to openly discuss their experiences, process their thoughts and feelings, and develop coping strategies. Group topics could include local and national resources available for LGBTQ individuals, LGBTQ role models, family relationships, intimate relationships, coming out, personal and professional issues that LGBTQ individuals encounter, and information about higher education institutions that are affirming of LGBTQ individuals.

Support groups for parents of LGBTQ students should also be offered. These groups would address ways for these parents to support their children. The groups would also provide a forum for parents to share their experiences and concerns with each other and with the school. In addition, many schools now offer a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a student-led organization with a faculty adviser that typically meets to learn about issues that LGBTQ students are facing. GSA is meant to be a group that promotes acceptance, social justice and advocacy. 

School counselors also make themselves available to all students for individual counseling. In many cases, they may be the only mental health professional that students have easy access to for support. It is therefore imperative that school counselors demonstrate cultural competency and provide a safe, affirming environment that includes acceptance and respect for all students.

School counselors need to be aware that LGBTQ students may not present with problems related to their sexuality or gender identity. School counselors also need to consider other contextual factors such as family dynamics when counseling LGBTQ students. In addition to providing leadership toward systemic change, counselors need to have an understanding of issues that specifically affect LGBTQ students on an individual basis. This understanding is achieved through an ongoing process that includes communicating with the local LGBTQ community, participating in continuing education opportunities about LGBTQ students, reading the latest research related to this population and familiarizing themselves with the legal and ethical mandates surrounding LGBTQ students. Most important, school counselors must engage in ongoing self-examination of their own biases, stereotypes and blind spots concerning all students.

The role of school counselors in advocating for LGBTQ students in school is critical. It is school counselors’ professional and ethical responsibility to ensure a safe and harassment-free learning environment for all youth. Connecting with parents and educating them on the continuum of gender and sexual identity can also be an important part of the process. Given counselors’ expertise and skills in supporting diversity and communicating difficult topics, they can play a central role in helping staff, administrators and students create schools that empower LGBTQ youth.

 

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Recommended resources from the authors

  • A Queer Endeavor (aqueerendeavor.org): This site provides educators, school staff, families and students with resources (videos, lesson plans, curriculum development best practices, textbook recommendations) to help support and create an inclusive school environment for sexual minority and gender-expansive students.
  • GLSEN Educator Resources (glsen.org/educate/resources): GLSEN is one of the nation’s largest advocacy groups focused on providing resources that promote the well-being of sexual minority and gender-expansive students in grades K-12. This site provides tools for schoolwide advocacy programming and lesson plans that are LGBTQ inclusive.
  • It’s Pronounced Metrosexual (itspronouncedmetrosexual.com): This site provides online resources (worksheets, videos, articles, books) about privilege and oppression overall, with an emphasis on educating society about topics related to sexual and gender identity. The site serves as a source of information for social justice advocates, researchers and clinicians.
  • American Psychological Association (APA) Safe and Supportive Schools Project (apa.org/pi/lgbt/programs/safe-supportive/default.aspx): APA’s Safe and Supportive Schools Project partners with five professional organizations, including the American Counseling Association and ASCA, to provide training and educational resources. The goal is to help school personnel, leaders of community organizations, parents and students to build positive, supportive and healthy environments that promote acceptance, allowing LGBTQ youth to thrive as their authentic selves.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Roberto L. Abreu is an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Tennessee State University. His research agenda focuses on the well-being of LGBTQ people of color, with specific attention to parental, school and community acceptance of Latinx LGBTQ youth. Contact him at rabreu@tnstate.edu.

Adriana G. McEachern is a professor emerita, a visiting associate professor and the program director for counselor education in the Department of Leadership and Professional Studies at Florida International University. She is a national certified counselor, certified rehabilitation counselor and licensed mental health counselor in Florida.

Jennifer Geddes Hall is a clinical assistant professor at Clemson University and a licensed professional counselor. She has more than 15 years’ experience working with children and teenagers as a school counselor and clinical mental health counselor in various community settings.

Maureen C. Kenny is a professor of counseling at Florida International University and director of the university’s clinical mental health counseling program.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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